Friday, 27 June 2014

Something That Happened, Regarding "The Fault In Our Stars"

I do not do opinion-pieces often, primarily because I have nothing much to say a lot of the time, and also because this is a movie-review blog and I try to keep it that way. Despite this, however, occasionally there's something relevant or interesting that I come across, film-related, that I think is worth sharing. Tonight, this happened, and I'm going to tell you, because it's made me think and I hope it makes you think too.

I work in a cinema, and we have lately been showing the hugely popular "The Fault In Our Stars", a film I did not much like for reasons I've detailed elsewhere (emotionally manipulative, and thus emotionally dead). Still, it's a hit, and it's attracted a vast number of people, mainly women, mainly aged between 11 and 25 (and their beleaguered boyfriends). It's a curious phenomenon of a film, because it seems to have attracted a cult of sadness about it. See it. Cry. Fit in. Take a selfie of you crying. Post on Facebook. Come across as sensitive and mature.

Exhibit A-

(I found this while cleaning a screen. I call it "the snake of tears")

So, with this in mind, I have taken the film as a pinch of salt. I even commented that really, on the spectrum, the film isn't that sad, to some customers exiting. And, in all fairness, I still agree with that statement. In my opinion it's a film engineered to be sad, and that takes away from the fact that for me, for a film to be sad, it has to just happen. It's a wildly unpredictable thing, but I've cried in a lot of movies a lot of times, so I guess it's not that unpredictable. Roger Ebert said that he only cried at good people in the movies, and that's about where I stand too. Lars and the Real Girl (without which this blog would not be here) made me cry, because Lars was such a strong and virtuous character, and that touched me. Calvary made me openly weep, because Brendan Gleeson's priest is one of the most beautifully drawn, caring characters I've ever seen in a film. And so on.

Hence, The Fault In Our Stars is somewhat false, because from the outset the film is egging you on, in a way. Look, terminal illness. Ooh, she's struggling to breath now. Ooh, look how hard it is for the parents. Ooh, look at how the protagonist soldiers on. Etc, etc.

Except tonight, something happened which startled and disquieted me. A group of Spanish exchange students had come in to watch the film, and they were on the whole well-behaved. When the film kicked out, there was a lot of theatrical crying, hugging, consoling. But I can get behind that, it's a group activity and anything that promotes general human togetherness gets a free pass in my book. So that's all fine.

Except, I start to notice one girl who is really, really crying. She can't be younger than 14, and no older than 17. At first I think she's just sad from the film, but then I realise something else; this film has touched her deep, deep inside.

It's happened to me. It happened, funnily enough, with Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother", which reduced me to pathetic sobs because it detailed a crumbling mother/son relationship right at a point when my relationship with my mother wasn't exactly brilliant. It happens when a film hits you hard at a personal level you're not quite expecting. It sideswipes you.

This girl, and this is pure speculation, I'm assuming has known someone or has had a close relative die of cancer. I just get that feeling. The way she was crying seemed to highlight some kind of deep, personal relation to the material. Also, not that I was eavesdropping, but she was on the phone to I presume her parents, and she kept saying the word "real" a lot, perhaps indicating that the film felt real to her. Being a student, she's clearly a long way from home and that's going to take it's toll emotionally too. I gave her tissues. The exchange chaperone person had to check if she was seriously okay. She was nearly inconsolable, and the whole situation went from mildly amusing to seriously concerning quite quickly. She left the cinema, and as far as I know is okay. I certainly hope she is.

But the incident has set me thinking. I don't think that that particular film is any definition of high art, but it's a film and thus art of some description, and for me this has simply proved the higher function of art; emotional catharsis. Art, at its best, should be like a dream. We dream, I have read, because it allows us to become accustomed to things that could happen to us, or deal with things that have happened. It's necessary to our existence. And I think that this film did that for that Spanish girl tonight. It spoke to her, on some level, about the nature of cancer, and perhaps losing a loved one; basic and arguably fundamental experiences we all go through. It clearly inspired a great emotional response, which in turn is purely indicative of her relation to the material.

It proves that film, when applied to the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, can do absolutely miraculous things. It can bring into focus where we are, at any point in time, and bring about great reflection and consideration. And that, to me, is a rather wondrous thing.

This is not to say that I rescind what I have said about The Fault In Our Stars. But that's the great thing about the subjectivity of art; it really is subjective. I think that The Fault In Our Stars is schlock, cheese and a generally poor time at the cinema. I have lost family members to cancer myself, but despite this I still felt a disconnect with the film. My experience of the illness and the film's presentation just didn't align.

But for this girl, they did. And that is why we should be thankful for films, and books, and music, and paintings and dance and sculpture and all forms of human expression. Because human expression speaks to some people more than others. Without art, we'd be a little less able to look at the very corners of our own souls, a little less capable of introspection, a little less capable of knowing ourselves.

So, it is here that I begrudgingly say thank you, to the makers of The Fault In Our Stars, for creating a film which has led to this kind of reaction in a person. And I say thank you, too, to that Spanish exchange student, because it is the kind of reaction you have had to the film; primal, raw, perhaps unwanted but necessary and beautiful all the same, which has proven the worth of film, and the worth of a film. It has brought about a facet of a human being's capacity for empathy and emotional depth.

As someone who has a lot of time and effort invested in film, that means a great deal to me.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Review of You, The Living (2007)

One cannot review Roy Andersson’s “You, The Living” without first taking into account the manner in which it is made, and I understand that a description of this sort may make the film seem dull, or reduce it in some way, so don’t be put off. The film is nothing more than a series of fifty vignettes, or tableaux, detailing the lives of various characters in one small Swedish town. The camera doesn’t move, or when it does it doesn’t move very much, and that’s in not much more than five of the segments anyway.

It sounds like an experiment, or perhaps the kind of thing that might be better suited to an art-gallery, or an installation somewhere. But where the film sidesteps being gimmicky is in its rigorous and meticulous construction and unwaveringly sympathetic eye towards human nature. It is, by turns, unsettling, funny, warm, inviting, bleak and strangely hopeful. It s a film that does no more than invite you to be alone with your thoughts for a while, and it induced in me a certain strange serenity. Despite the various odd elements here, no film has put me at ease as quickly as this one.

The vignettes that the film is comprised of… Let me describe the first couple. The film opens with a man lying asleep on a settee in a fairly uncomfortable manner. The camera is still, and an unseen train rattles the apartment. The man awakes suddenly and tells the audience that he dreamt he was being bombed. Already, we are gripped; what films break the fourth wall so early on, in such a bizarre manner?

The second vignette, and one of my favourites, concerns a woman on a bench telling her boyfriend to go away, that nobody understands her, that she is miserable. It’s clear that she’s attention seeking, but just when you think all possibilities of the sketch have been exhausted, she breaks out into tuneful, upbeat song.

And so on, and so on, leading on from each other, or not, until the film reaches an ominous yet beautiful and startling conclusion. It’s as if Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” was directed by a metaphysical poet. It’s a gorgeous experience, and each tableaux could be a complete short film on its own. Some are funny, some are scary, some are plain sad, and the film flirts with Kafka in one memorable sequence where a man finds himself placed in an electric chair after his attempt to whisk a tablecloth from out under the table goes awkwardly, horribly wrong.

The film too has a certain dreamy, creamy quality which bolsters the effect that Andersson seems to be going for. The cinematography by Gustav Danielsson is delightful, relishing in the clear, composed images that Andersson has devised. The set design, too, is angular and slightly off-kilter, with Magnus Renfors and Elin Segerstedt having created a world where the images are constantly “not right” in the way that we scrutinise them constantly for details we might not be missing. Yet, every element is right there on screen for us to see; sometimes things will happen which jolt our perceptions, sometimes we stay focussed on one character doing nothing much at all. But we are always gripped.

Perhaps the major strength of this film is how Andersson seems to understand human nature, and is presenting a cross-section of us as a race. We are all here, with our lusts, love, self-loathing, joy, melancholy, our art and our attempts at making each other happy. One sequence, for example, sees a particularly nasty thunderstorm set into the town, and characters start peering out the window and stopping their business just to listen to it; and, believe it or now, I found myself enjoying the thunderstorm as well. This is the kind of film that it is; one which makes you a participant in the actions as much as the actors that Andersson has hired. You cannot help but be involved. This is helped by the jubilant, buoyant Dixieland score, which results in a certain tuneful tone to the film.

There is, no doubt, masses of subtext and ways in which the film can be read that I have missed out on; but I don’t think I’ve missed out on too much, because for me the film is first and foremost a treatise on human nature. That’s no small achievement. Above all, as a series of images, it represents a stripping back to the bare essentials of film, an exercise of formality that manages to draw the viewer in with quiet confidence. It’s a unique, blackly funny film that I cannot recommend enough, for its deadpan, rather sublime vision.

(you may note I have not listed any actors by name; there are so many in this film and their jobs are all so crucial that to name one would mean I would have to name them all. Instead, I shall compromise and link you to the cast IMDb page. They deserve their credit as much as the director-

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review of Of Horses And Men (2014)

Benedikt Erlingsson's "Of Horses and Men" is an Icelandic film about just that. A chronicle of life on a small, secluded island, for 81 minutes it quietly observes the behaviours of man viewed through the prism of his treatment of horses. It's an odd premise for a film that befits what can only be described as a very odd film. You know when your first scene details a man's attempts to train his horse, only to have it all unravelled when another horse decides to get it on with that horse, whilst that man is sat atop it... Yeah. I laughed. It's like an arthouse Tom Green movie.

It's from here that the film essentially delivers a series of vignettes about our connection with horses and what it says about us as a species. We get to know a few key faces, such as Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson's proud Kolbeinn, the poor man on top of the horse at the beginning. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada stars as Juan (IMDb tells me this is his first film, perhaps his last), and he is the centre of the film's best sequence; fearfully navigating the snow as the sun begins to set, and desperate not to die, he finds himself with no other option than to cut his horse open and get inside. It could have been troubling, and it nearly is, but Erlingsson shoots it in a respectful, rather beautiful way, understanding of the fact that this is purely survival. Certainly Juan doesn't seem to be enjoying it that much (he only got into horse-riding to impress a girl he likes). and it represents the film at its best; thoughtful, funny, bizarre and strangely hypnotic. You can't help but look on in fascination and horror.

The film at it's worst, then... Sometimes, at certain moments, there seemed to be a misanthropic tendency to the film which rubbed me up the wrong way. This leaves me in a quandary as a reviewer because I don't think the film is, actually, that misanthropic. It certainly seems to be making a statement about how man is a bit stupid compared to the simple elegance of a horse, but by the end we can see some investment in the happiness of the people on the island. Why did I detect the misanthropy? It came through mainly in the sequences where a man rides his horse into the sea to buy some particularly strong alcohol, ignores the warnings of the seller, drinks it all and dies, and in another sequence where a man tries to cut down a barbed wire fence, it springs back and blinds him.

Why did these sequences bother me? Alas, I do not know. They are good cinema, blackly funny in a way the film invests itself in being, very effectively, although they do seem to dwell on human stupidity in a major way. They signalled a worry, I suppose, that the film was going to be a portrait of dumb people doing dumb things for 81 minutes (they all occur quite early on), detailing a sort of anthropophobic tract. Luckily, the film doesn't pan out that way, and I imagine I'd enjoy it more on a second viewing.

These little niggles aside, the film is very very good. The cinematography is beautiful, and director of photography Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson has created a certain epic feel to the film, with wide open vistas, a well-used 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and an unhurried composition. It's a little slow, but the film wants us to feel the same rhythms, longeurs and repetitions that the people on the island do. I can't fault that. 

I recommend this film, with the caveat that I had trouble embracing it. I had by the end, and on reflection my initial criticisms are unfounded, but yet they linger. I guess all I can say is that I would gladly see this film again, and know during the second run-through that the film isn't going to turn out in the way that I was initially scared of it being. This is an odd angle to take, but, I guess that's fitting, because as I have said and as I'm sure you have gathered, "Of Horses and Men" is a supremely odd film.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Review of The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

I should start this review with a caveat- I have not read John Green's "The Fault In Our Stars", the seminal teenage fiction book unanimously praised, universally embraced, unexpectedly loved. I have, however, read his 2006 novel "An Abundance of Katherines", and found it to be a gimmicky, slight and unexceptional piece of sentimental hogwash. It is fitting, then, that these qualities were found in abundance in the film "The Fault In Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, which at the time of writing stands with an 8.5 rating on IMDb, and a good Metacritic rating of 69. I have long since given up paying attention to the corralling of "fandoms" and arbitrary squabbling surrounding IMDb ratings, but the Metacritic score is harder to unpick. Maybe I've missed the point, or some crucial detail? Somehow, I doubt it.

I should start with the two good things about this film; it's very watchable, and it is well acted. These are quite basic and fundamental qualities, but they are in service of a plot which in itself isn't hooey, but the approach to it is. Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old girl with thyroid cancer and complications in her lungs as a result. We first see her looking on in envy at other couples and normal people doing normal things at the shopping mall; she's stuck lugging around an oxygen tank. These early scenes, whilst effective, are misleading, because they set up a film where characters eschew clichés and are critically aware of conventions. Woodley is acerbic, and she paints herself to have a will of steel; to her credit, her character does, aside from in the scenes where the film wants her to be madly in love, in that facile, irritating, teenage way.

Egged on to attend a support group by her well-meaning parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), once there Hazel meets the flippant yet endearing (in Hazel's eyes at least) Augustus Waters, Gus, played by Ansel Elgort. He's there to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has glaucoma and is going to have his eye surgically removed, although he himself had a battle with cancer a few years ago and had his right leg amputated as a result. Hazel and Gus have a meet-cute on the way into the meeting, and this sets up the movie's romance.

It's from here that the film is a straight descent into utter mush. As I have said, the film is very well-acted, and it really, really is. Shailene Woodley's performance is superb, and the fact that she can carry such charisma with an oxygen tank and tubes forever burdening her is quite remarkable. Laura Dern too does a remarkable job as Grace's mother, and her performance is the closest thing to elevating this film; the pain and bravery she conveys, coupled with Woodley's resolve, are almost on a different level.

So what went wrong? The screenplay, for a start, is wonky. The phrase "pain demands to be felt" is uttered three times, and three times too many. And if you ever wanted to hear Willem Defoe ask "are you familiar with Swedish hip-hop?", then by golly this is the film you want. But, dialogue aside, I was mainly disappointed with how the screenplay sets up a film where the characters are going to do everything that doesn't happen in films like this... And yet their romance unfurls in a conventional, middle-of-the-road way. Sure, they have their illnesses, and to the film's credit there is an attempt (read: attempt) to tackle these themes head on. But it descends into the same gumpf that it marks itself out as actively trying to avoid.

This is also one of the most artificial, sterile, white (in terms of production design and skin colour, which struck me as odd) films I have ever seen. I have said it's watchable, but that is mainly because no risks were taken. This film is devoid of any style, any personal touch, any flourish to make us feel as though the film was made by an actual human being. The cinematography by Ben Richardson is unremarkable, and it feels as though the only aim on set was "get the people on the screen, vaguely frame them". The closest we get to anything distinctive is animated speech bubbles containing the texts swapped between Gus and Hazel, although this is quickly becoming a standard technique in Hollywood film-making (this year's "Frank", an infinitely superior film to this, used it to far better effect). The soundtrack too is intrusive, obvious and dull, compiling a playlist of such musical talents as Ed Sheeran (he performed that awfully ill-fitting music during last year's Hobbit credits), Lykke Li, Birdy, and OneRepublic.

Come the inevitable conclusion to this slog, I simply didn't care. I have no doubt that this film will not go away; even considering the fans surrounding it, this is the kind of film that tends to attract the zeitgeist, perhaps giving the illusion that they people have watched something with emotional nuance and depth. In my humble opinion, it is not; it is the stuff of a thousand workaday chick-lits and romcoms, and the fact that it uses cancer as its USP is certainly questionable. It's no more than sentimental hooey.

There is, no doubt, a great story waiting to be made about terminally ill teenagers finding love. This, I can say for certain, is not it.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review of Valhalla Rising (2009)

Nic Winding Refn is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and if that sounds like code for “he’s good but not great”, or “his ideas are worthwhile but his films aren’t”, then it isn’t. He’s one of that rare breed of current film-makers, along with Rob Zombie, Lars von Trier, Aki Kaurismaki and others, where you can sense the joy he has in making his film, whilst the film itself remains serious. I appreciate this approach. It often results in films which are fun, unique, thoughtful, and yet maintain their surface effect of being tense, thrilling, scary.

This principle is in effect in abundance throughout Refn’s “Valhalla Rising”, a film which is indebted to David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sigmund Freud, and yet works perfectly well on its own terms. It takes two endlessly fascinating recurring tropes in art (that of the silent, omnipotent “superman”, and the descent into hell/the heart of darkness), and weaves a giddy, scary, fierce concoction of images around that. Set against the backdrop of the crusades, it’s a fascinating, weird and scary film that slots nicely into Refn’s oeuvre.

We begin with the mute Norse soldier One-Eye (aptly named), who is kept in a cage and fed gruel in a dirty bowl. He is occasionally wheeled out by his owners, and made to fight other men. He’s very good at fighting, as a lot of characters in Refn’s films are. In his very first scene, he is tied to a post, and yet manages to disarm and break the necks of two men attacking him with knives. There is hushed talk of how One-Eye has yet to lose a fight, and maybe, just maybe, he is sent from Hell itself. He is feared, and certainly fearsome. Played by Mads Mikkelsen, he is not so much a character as an interactive piece of scenery Refn decided to use. He is more of an embodiment, of the male psyche, of our desire to be strong, of Christ, of Death, and so on.

One day, One Eye is sold to a new troupe, and in a brutal scene involving evisceration and clubbings, he escapes. He murders every single one of his new owners, bar a child known only as “The Boy” (Maarten Stevenson), who One Eye comes to communicate through. (here we see one of the oldest tropes in cinema come through; you can brutally slaughter any grown man in any number of ways, but a child? No way).

One-Eye and The Boy trek, and trek, and trek some more, until they meet a group of Christian Crusaders trying to find the holy land. After this, the film gets murky in a very Danish way, and the chapter titles that the film portions itself up with get more overtly theological; “Part 3: Men of God”, “Part 4: The Holy Land”, and my favourite, the portentous “Part 5: Hell”.

Refn has composed this film to within an inch of itself, as is his method. There’s a certain rejection of a traditional narrative, and in place of it there is symbolism, imagery; overtones as opposed to a stance. Refn very effectively creates a sense of heightened reality, where all things are imposing and foreboding, accentuated by his use of the booming, pulsing, electronic score, composed by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed. Their work is, arguably, the most important component of the film, or certainly the most prominent, and without it the film may have been laughable, or worse, dismissible. It forces you to deal with it.

Luckily, there is a lot to deal with. Just because Refn has tropes that he appears to return to film after film (mainly, men), doesn’t mean that those tropes aren’t worthwhile. He’s picked a good subject to make films around. The film this time has a loose, strung together style that evokes Apocalypse Now and, in more than one instance, Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”. Those are two seminal films about very similar themes, and it’s good company for the film to be in. The cinematography by Morten Søborg adds a certain sense of unease, shifting from meticulously composed symmetrical compositions to floating, faux-documentary style, from cutting far wide, to entering extreme close-up. And the lighting, too, is a delight, and the obvious use of red-lighting (a weakness of mine) is extraordinarily effective.

By turns horrifying and beautiful, slow and weird, it’s a film where violence is never far away and men hitting each other is the order of the day; just like everything else Refn has done (and in particular it makes a great companion with Refn’s later “Only God Forgives”, which shares this films tendency for the juxtaposition of aesthetic and brutality). There's more than one wince-worthy moment.

The film also has heavy-handed religious themes and ideas, having immense fun with the crusades backdrop (choice dialogue: “we’ve raised the cross, now we will raise the sword!”). It makes us think about the nature of God complexes. There's a recurring image of a man trying to stack stones, but they keep falling down, and the film hints at more than one instance that it's about the sort of nature we try to impose on everything to console ourselves of the cruel, chaotic, deterministic nature of the universe. But then, the film's about a lot of things.

It comes across as a sort of The Seventh Seal on acid, although no flashy grab-line can really do justice to the film. It makes me picture Refn sat by his camera in the Scottish Highlands, giggling to himself as he wonders what would be great to shoot next. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film only Refn could make, and that comes with the caveat that it’s the kind of film only Refn would make. But you know what? Good for him.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Review of Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

Me and You and Everyone We Know begins with a sense of unease as the male lead, Richard, played by John Hawkes, is collecting his belongings as he separates from his wife, and then goes outside, douses his hand in lighter fluid, and sets it on fire. Played in slow-motion, the scene is an interesting one to start the story with. It sets up the character of Richard very effectively, and the central image is a Lynchian one.

This sense of unease is maintained throughout the film, yet whereas in the beginning we are not aware of director/writer/star Miranda July’s intentions, as we go on the film develops and we come away feeling not so much uneasy as icky. I’m no philistine, and there is a place for controversial themes like the burgeoning sexuality of a child (Todd Solondz’s masterful “Happiness” did that along with a paedophile plot strand), but in this film… I don’t know. The scene where a young child of six sexts on a message forum around the topic of scat-play… I wasn’t feeling it.

It doesn’t help how July chooses to make the film. She plays a digital media artist called Christine, and the film at times resembles the odd visual experiments she makes. There’s a curiously infectious electro-synthy soundtrack, which I liked, and her shot composition is clearly very “arty”, but the overall sense of whimsy I found to be ill-fitting. There’s another scene where two young (14-16) year old girls talk to an older man, who is clearly attracted to them but states, plainly, that he doesn’t believe their claims of being eighteen. Nevertheless, he writes lewd messages on his window for them to read, including one which insinuates he’d like to be fellated by one of the girls more than the other. A little insulted, they go to Richard’s son, and take it in turns to fellate him, to try and prove who is truly the best. If reading that has made you as uncomfortable as it was for me typing it, then you get my point.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. There is more to the film than this, and it is, at heart, a study of paternal anomie and a love story, and most of it concerns Richard’s attempts at juggling being a divorcee, good father and career man (he isn’t very successful at any of them). He’s a shoe salesman, and his character is probably my favourite aspect of the film, or at least the only good one. He’s clearly burdened with self-loathing, and Hawkes genuinely seems to understand his inner machinations.

July’s character I found less convincing, which is odd, given her credits in the film. She falls in love with Richard pretty quickly, and when you watch the film, her motivations seem to come from nowhere abruptly. Her behaviour seems too calculatedly “quirky”, such as when she walks into Richard’s work and starts wearing socks on her head. And she embodies the worst of something that every character in this film is guilty of; vanity, and selfishness. Some of the dialogue between her Richard is choice as well (“you think you deserve that pain but you don’t”, referring to a blister), and their relationship seems irritating and facile.

It doesn’t amount to much. I’m normally very open to films like this, and I adore a close observational style with flawed characters who are nevertheless real. It’s what I go to the cinema for, in fact. And whilst there’s no denying that the film has its moments (two or three), these aren’t enough to salvage it from being a weird, unlikeabless mess. It really does come out the other end. It’s an affectless, dull work which left me feeling crawly at the end, and not in a good way. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review of Hana-Bi (1997)

Shockingly gruesome violence and moments of genuine love and tenderness make oddly comfortable bedfellows in this brutal yet touching film from Japan’s Takeshi Kitano (or “Beat Takeshi”). The film follows an ex-cop called Nishi, played by Kitano himself, who is no longer on the force due to an incident resulting in the deaths of his co-workers. The film takes a while to arrive at these plot points, however, and marks itself out principally as a terse examination of this character. Take the first scene, where he makes two louts clean his car. When one of them falters, he kicks him to the ground. As with a lot of the characters Kitano plays in his other films, violence is something that comes naturally, too naturally. He’s a more unpredictable variant of the Clint Eastwood “Man With No Name” type.

Yet somewhere, buried deep, he has a heart. We learn that his wife is seriously ill, dying, and through his interactions with her we see that he is a man capable of warmth, love, good humour. One very crucial scene has him robbing a bank to pay for them to take a trip away together, and where another, perhaps lesser film, would have dwelled on the excitement of the heist, Kitano plays the scene off cooly, showing only the elements we need to know. He walks in dressed as a police office. He points the gun at the bank clerk. She understands what to do, hands him the money, and then Nishi leaves.

This stripped back style, which amounts to a tranquillity, pervades the film from beginning to end. The film occasionally comes across as using montage. Take the notorious scene early on where Nishi stabs a man in the eye with a pair of chopsticks. It is a brutal scene, yet it is played in such a manner where we see no actual violence. Nishi picks up the chopsticks, and gestures. We hear a scream. Blood falls onto the table in front. The man, chopsticks in his eyes, falls to the floor. But we never see the chopsticks go into the eyes, and the scene is effective primarily with the power of suggestion. It proves Eisenstein’s theory of montage, that the human mind will make connections between random images.

That’s not to say that there isn’t other, more graphic violence in the film. This is one of those films where when people are shot, they die, and we watch them die. It calls upon the viewer to reflect on the senseless nature of killing. It approaches violence in a manner I found agreeable, not exploitative but instead contemplative, befitting perhaps a Michael Haneke film. It also has a good line in guilt, as we scrutinise Kitano’s expressionless face and find, deep down, a sadness.

Yet for a film concerning itself with much killing, death and anger, what struck me as most moving were the moments of tenderness Kitano peppers his film with. The relationship between Nishi and his wife Miyuki, played by Kayoko Kishimoto, struck me and actually takes up a majority of the second half of the film. I came to admire how Kitano observes Nishi’s capabilities for tenderness. There’s a scene where the pair are playing a guessing game with playing cards. Miyuki is holding the cards up, and time after time Nishi is guessing them correctly. Nishi can see them reflected in the mirror behind Miyuki. It’s a beautifully played scene with a sublime little payoff, and it adds brilliantly to the curious tone Kitano is going for. There is also a scene where Miyuki is putting dead flowers in a jar of water, and a man observes that she must be mad to do so. Nishi beats him half to death as a result. The scene, whilst brutal, I nevertheless found moving because of Nishi’s fierce commitment to his wife.

There’s also a subplot involving Nishi’s ex-partner Horibe, played by Ren Ohsugi. Paralysed from the waist down and abandoned by his wife and children, he is despondent and hopeless, suicidal. Nishi gets him some art materials, and a fair portion of the film is devoted to observed his efforts at artwork. It might seem superfluous, but I liked how it brought into focus the twin peaks of his film, brutality and beauty.

It may not please all people. I came to appreciate the juxtaposition of violence and loveliness, because the two seemed to accentuate each other, but some may find them ill-fitting. The film has a non-linear construction which some viewers may find odd or off-putting, and admittedly the film does take a while to settle into what it’s actually doing. But I found it, above all, to be a poetic and sublime film with a purity to the camerawork and a refreshingly pared back approach to the emotions, which run deep. It’s the antithesis of gangster movies which measure their emotions purely in body-counts and it makes me very eager to see more of Kitano’s work. As a study of guilt, hurt, male rage and love, you won’t see many better examples than this one.